NATURE'S CLEAN-UP CREW

Save vultures from extinction

Over the last 30 years, populations of African vultures have crashed.

In Summary

•  An average plant processes 164,400kg of meat, while 600 vultures can consume 115,200 to 172,800kg.

•  They consume carcasses that would otherwise rot away and become disease reservoirs, thus reducing the spread of diseases.

Vultures are often shunned as dirty and ugly, with many cartoonists using their caricatures to depict corruption. They are often associated with bad omen or even death, factors that have shaped people’s attitudes towards them.

However, vultures are perhaps the most important birds in the ecosystem, providing carcass and organic waste disposal services. Also known as “nature’s clean-up crew”, vultures consume carcasses that would otherwise rot away and become disease reservoirs, thus reducing the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis to human beings and other animals. Vultures are so important that there is a day set aside each year to celebrate them.

On September 7, 2019, the world marked International Vulture Awareness Day. In recent decades the number of vultures has fallen steeply. In India for example, three species of vultures declined by 90 percent in the 1990s as a result of feeding on livestock carcasses that contained diclofenac, a drug used to treat livestock.

African vultures are now experiencing similarly large declines as those in Asia, but for different reasons. Over the last 30 years, populations of African vultures have crashed, with seven species experiencing declines of more than 80 percent. Consequently, seven of the 11 species of African vultures, are now either Critically Endangered or Endangered.

The biggest killer of African vultures is poisoning by poachers. Vultures play a key role as sentinels of the African skies—circling around animal carcasses, alerting wildlife authorities about poaching activity. Poachers often lace carcasses with poison to kill vultures, thus, preventing them from signalling their illegal activity.

This not only portends a huge loss for biodiversity but also poses additional threats to people, as having healthy vulture populations helps contain the spread of diseases. A 2016 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature showed that 600 vultures can provide animal waste disposal services equivalent to a medium-sized plant. An average plant processes 164,400 kilogrammes of meat, while 600 vultures can consume between 115,200 and 172,800 kilogrammes, highlighting the significance of these birds in our ecosystems.

The biggest killer of African vultures is poisoning by poachers. Vultures play a key role as sentinels of the African skies—circling around animal carcasses, alerting wildlife authorities about poaching activity. Poachers often lace carcasses with poison to kill vultures, thus, preventing them from signalling their illegal activity.

For example, in June 2019, more than 500 endangered and critically endangered vultures were killed in a single poisoning incident by elephant poachers in Botswana. Vultures are also affected by human-wildlife conflict, whereby farmers or herders use poisoned carcasses to kill predators such as lions and leopards which in turn kill vultures when consumed.

Vultures are also killed for belief-based use in various African countries, particularly in West Africa. It is believed that a vulture head can bring good luck and will enable a person to predict the future, while other body parts are believed to cure various medical conditions. Human activities such as infrastructural developments, especially in the energy sector, are taking a toll on vulture habitats. Power lines and wind turbines are responsible for vultures’ deaths through collision or electrocution.

In light of these threats, concerted efforts are required to save vultures. Governments, policymakers, conservationists and international bodies should come together and address this challenge that has the potential to destabilise the ecosystem, with far-reaching socioeconomic effects.

Creating awareness about vultures is critical, and IVAD provides an opportunity for the world to appreciate the role of vultures in our ecosystems and take concrete steps to ensure their survival. Involving local communities is also critical. In Kenya for instance, local communities in the Masai Mara are working with Nature Kenya, The Peregrine Fund and BirdLife International to address poisoning of vultures and promote conservation efforts.

 

Internationally, a number of frameworks have been put in place, most importantly the Multi-species Action Plan for African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP) approved in October 2017, which seeks to halt the decline of vulture populations, and promote conservation efforts of 15 vulture species in 128 countries.

Policymakers should ensure that national environmental laws include the protection of vultures. Countries should consider enacting and strictly enforcing laws regulating the sale and use of poisons and dangerous pesticides being used to poison vultures, in addition to banning trade in vulture parts.

Lastly, strong partnerships and safeguards are needed to ensure protection of vulture habitats in places where energy infrastructure is being developed. These will go a long way in conserving “nature’s clean-up crew”, and ensuring healthy ecosystems for the benefit of all.

Programme manager, Nature Kenya, and member of BirdLife International